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U.S. Attracts Christians, Buddhists

Pew Study of Immigrants' Religions Finds Mexicans, Chinese Shifting Populations


The United States is the top destination for Christian and Buddhist immigrants from around the world, according to a Pew Research Center study released in March 2012.

The Pew researchers looked at the religions of immigrant populations and tracked their movement between countries. The study found that, in 2010, about 32 million Christian immigrants lived in the United States and 1.7 million Buddhist immigrants.

The Christian population has swelled in recent decades because of the large numbers of Catholics migrating to the U.S. from Latin America, the Caribbean and the Philippines. Mexico has been by far the largest nation of origin for U.S. immigrants during recent decades.

Mexico has accounted for 12 million immigrants, both documented and undocumented, about as many as the country has taken in from all other sources combined. The other leading countries of origin for U.S. immigrants are the Philippines (1.8 million), India (1.7 million), China (1.4 million) and Germany (1.2 million).

China has contributed much to the growth of the U.S. population of Buddhist immigrants in expanding Asian communities. One of every five international migrants alive today lives in the United States. During the last half-century, the migration of immigrants has shifted the traditional religious makeup of the country.

According to the Pew researchers: “In the United States, for instance, more than a century of immigration by Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others has contributed to the gradual reduction of the once-overwhelming proportion of Protestants, which has fallen from two-thirds of the U.S. public in the 1960s to about half today.”

The United States has also become the top destination for immigrants who have no religious affiliations, including agnostics and atheists, many of them from China, according to the study.

Of the nearly 43 million foreign-born residents in the United States, about three-quarters are Christian. Unlike the early decades of the nation’s history, the primary motivation for coming to the U.S. isn’t religious persecution. Today, the main reason is economic opportunity, the researchers say, and immigrants are assimilating here in search of a higher economic standard.

The Pew report used census and United Nations data from around the world. The researchers said the study is really a first look, “a baseline,” that will require further examination. They said their research did not attempt to measure the levels of religious commitment among immigrants.

“The picture is, inevitably, fuzzy in places,” researchers said. “Some pieces of the puzzle are missing (reliable survey or census data on the religious affiliation of immigrants are not available for every country) and some pieces do not fit perfectly together (censuses and surveys in different countries gather information in ways that are sometimes difficult to harmonize).”

The study found that about 26 million Christians make up 56% of the immigrant population of the 27 European Union countries; Muslim immigrants account for 27%.

Russia was the second-most popular destination for immigrants, with 12 million living there today. Russia’s large economy draws many migrants from nearby countries. Germany, with about 10 million immigrants ranks third, followed by Saudi Arabia and Canada with around 7 million each.

After Christians, Muslims are the second-largest group of migrants worldwide, accounting for about 60 million or 27% of the world’s immigrant population. The study found that about 25% of all Jews are living in places other than their countries of origin.

Researchers found that most of the 3.6 million immigrant Jews, including survivors of the Holocaust, left Europe and 2.8 million of them wound up in Israel.

The total number of international migrants has grown substantially during the last half-century, according to the report, increasing from about 80 million (2.6% of the world’s population) in 1960 to about 214 million (about 3% of the world’s population) in 2010.

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